Monday, August 04, 2008

Epistemology (Narrative Gospel 3)

Following up on the "1000 Word Gospel" post and the "Identifying Our Context" post...

Epistemology has to do with the general theory of knowledge (and how we acquire knowledge.) Under modernity, it was assumed that “knowledge was certain and that the criterion for that certainty rests with our human rational capabilities.” Thus, it was thought that in order to ascertain certain knowledge of “absolute truth”, one must detach oneself and approach the subject as an objective observer. After obtaining this position of detached neutrality, one must reduce the subject to rational propositions that, taken together are logically irrefutable. The attraction of such a system is obvious. If human beings can strip off our subjectivity and simply gain knowledge of objective and absolute truth, then it seems only reasonable that this enlightenment would naturally lead human beings to peace and harmony. This is the great story, the meta-narrative (if you will) into which modernity placed its faith: Progress. Human beings are freeing themselves from all of that superstitious nonsense and subjectivity, and are finally becoming “enlightened”. As they do, the world will just get better and better. After all, knowledge is inherently good, right? As it turns out, these assumptions, reasonable and logical though they may be, are not necessarily true. N.T. Wright explains:

“The myth of progress and enlightenment created the context not only for Charles Darwin, but for that which followed in his wake, namely a “Social Darwinism” that made talk of eugenics, of racial purity, of selective breeding, and ultimately of ‘final solutions’ acceptable, even apparently desirable, not just in Germany, but in Britain and America as well.”

For all of its “propositional truth”, modernity still oriented itself around a narrative of progress. This narrative was forceful, dominating and coercive, virtually demanding that everyone get on board or get out of the way. Anyone who didn’t see the obvious truth of the narrative was deemed either stupid, naive or crazy.

(To be continued)


Mike L. said...

I like so much of what you are saying, but I wonder if the definition and analysis of modern/postmodern is problematic. You (or he) make is sound like the problem with modernity was the enlightenment. Am I missing something? It seems to me like the scientific discoveries made in the last 500 years are extremely important. The problem with modernity was its REACTION to those discoveries by both fundamentalists who rejected them and overzealous religious critiques who used science to reject ANY value in religious stories once they were shown to be mythical in nature.

This is where I fear the productive exegesis of N.T. Wright falls into the abyss of fundamentalism. He tries to make the leap from pre-modern naivety directly to post-modern narrative without correctly dealing with the important contributions of modernity. Something important is lost in the jump. To be postMODERN means we've absorbed all that modernity had to offer and THEN moved on with that data at our disposal. I'm afraid Wright has not done that. He's elected to ignore so much and cling to ancient interpretations that use superstition as their epistemological basis. The result leaves me wondering how he is any different than the fundies. His writing comes across at times as post-ancient, not post-modern.

Rejecting the enlightenment (or Darwin) because of the "social Darwinism" would be like rejecting Christianity because of the Crusades. His example here is just plain bad logic.

Maybe modern scholars mistakenly tried to rip off the band-aid and eliminate ancient superstitions all at once. Maybe that was too harsh and too fast. Maybe Wright can help people slowly leave their attachments to superstitions, but the band-aid has to come off eventually. Doesn't it? We can't continue destroying our planet and subjecting women and minorities to abuse simply because a literal reading of the Bible perpetuates the views of ancient pre-science and cultural barbarism. There needs to be a path for people to embrace the important discoveries of modernity and move past that old fight into something that lets faith and science live in harmony without asking Christians to put their heads in the sand for another century like they did in the past.

I feel like it is a poor compromise to keep some superstitions and eliminate others. I think the better choice is to recognize that the truths of the bible were never meant to be in the superstitions of its authors. Is it possible for us to see the stories as marvelous vehicles for truth, but not themselves truths? That feels like a a much more healthy postmodern compromise that takes us past the modern wars.

Adam said...

I'm posting the rest of this piece in sections over the next few weeks and some of it will be pertinent to your comments here.

However, I will respond to a couple of the issues you bring up here.

a) Wright's "Darwin reference" isn't particularly interested in the general theory of evolution as it is social Darwinism. In the context I pulled it from, that is clear, but it can be misleading when removed from that context. I almost didn't use the quote for that reason.
b) In terms of modernism/postmodernism, the work and though of most postmodern philosophers from Derrida to Foucault (and Caputo) are consistent with the way I characterize it here (and they are not written from a "Christian" standpoint by any stretch of the imagination;) ). There are people who conceive of postmodernity as a form of hypermodenrity. As postmodernity is still somewhat embrionic, this cannot be definitively rejected (but can anything under postmodernity?). This seems more consistent with your understanding of postmodernity/modernity (I could be wrong here). My perspective on this is different, but it is not uninformed, nor is it an inbred definition developed in the confines of a Christian subculture. You are quite right when you point out that postmodernity is not a complete rejection of modernity, but neither is it a complete acceptance of its assumptions or even the "certainties" that became "known" under these assumptions.
c) at some point in the future, I'd like to discuss supernaturality/superstition with you, but it will keep for now.
Take care man. We'll get together soon.

Mike L. said...

Thanks for the response Adam. I'm looking forward to that discussion. I will add one more thought based on this comment you made:

"..postmodernity is not a complete rejection of modernity, but neither is it a complete acceptance of its assumptions or even the "certainties" that became "known" under these assumptions."

I see many aspects of modernity to reject, but mostly they are the bad reactions to modern knowledge not modern knowledge itself. If by modernity you mean modern knowledge and the scientific methods it brought us, then I'm troubled by this. However, I suspect you might mean something else.

The best thing that modernity brought us was a complete ABSENCE of assumptions. Modernity ended the idea of making assumptions without questions and without testing the evidence. I think that is valuable and should never be rejected lest we return to the dark ages. So, I find it hard to accept a suggestion that modernity had "assumptions". If anything, modernity began the end of assumptions (that introduced some real problems for religion). Yes, that does lend to the appearance of arrogance when religious thinkers try to slide their assumptions into scientific debates only to have them rejected from those conversations (which they should be).

I also struggle with the term "social darwinism" in context of modernity. It somehow implies (maybe unintentionally) that Darwin or his understanding of Evolution has anything at all to do with an acceptance of human suffering or a type of hyper-libertarian absence of concern for others. Nothing could be further from Darwin's theory. So many people misunderstand Darwin and that completely misguided term is a big reason that Christians have had trouble moving into the 20th century (never mind the 21st). I was once in that camp many years ago.

So back to Wright's take on Epistemology...

All I've gleaned from him so far is that since a biblical author said something, we must accept it including any cultural trappings or ancient superstitions that come along for the ride. That seems like a horrible epistemological viewpoint. Am I missing something?

Maybe the bit of language confusion we have is when you use "modern assumptions" I hear "modern scientific findings". I'm not sure you really mean that, but many fundamentalists DO mean that. Do you see those as the same things or do you mean something else?

Thanks for the dialog.


Adam said...

Ok, I'm starting to understand why we are talking past each other a bit. When I use the term "Social Darwinism" (which isn't very often) I am referring to the application of the "survival of the fittest" part of his theory into a context which is generally foreign to his work. I'm using it more in a metaphorical sense. I really don't have much of an interest in the debate over Darwinism itself, and am in no way meaning to disparage Charles Darwin or his theory by my use of the term. (nor do any of the writers I quote in the context of their work).

Secondly, one of the major ideologies that has emerged in postmodernity is that the modern claim that "human beings can assume a position of objectivity that is free from assumptions, presuppositions and perspective" is a myth. This does not discount scientific knowledge, but it does remove virtually any concept from an absolute postion of intellectual coercion that demands compliance. This concept is of course debatable, but the bulk of postmodern thought and literature emphasize exactly this point. Also, I think it is important to note that this concept was not developed by Christian or particularly religious thinker (if fact, many Christians feel quite threatened by it.) The next section I'm posting on monday in this series deals with this more in depth.

In relation to Wright, your admittedly tentative characterization of his work is not consistent with what I've seen in him, though I'm sure you would find points of contention. Have you read the book he wrote with Borg, "The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions"? I haven't yet, but I do own it. I was thinking it might be cool if we read through that together and discussed it either online or at lunch over a few weeks (or both). Wright's view is similar to mine, while Borg's view seems similar to yours. The two are actually good friends and the book is written as a dialogue. It could be interesting, don't you think?

Mike L. said...

I have read the wright/borg book. I actually have a DVD of a two day debate on the resurrection between the two guys. It is pretty good. Of course, I really dig Borg much more. His logic is so much more reasonable and his language is more concise. Wright sounds really intelligent, but usually wraps his arguments around on themselves. It almost feels like his goal is to create a paradox so that he doesn't have to ever draw a conclusion. There are places where paradox is inevitable, but he almost forces a paradox where there doesn't need to be one. I feel like he is making many theological issues more difficult than they need be. You are right that these guys are friends. That is what I love about Emergent. It's ok to disagree and have these discussions.

Sometimes I wonder if Emergents have that same desire to create the illusion of paradoxical situations in order to avoid having to make any changes in their theology. I'm as emergent as the next guy, but this is an problem that I see growing in the "movement" lately. I wonder if it just becomes an excuse to avoid progress and putting some of these old faith/science battles to bed once and for all.

Thanks for taking the time to dialog!